White working class voters and the future of the Democratic party
November 16, 2016 19 Comments
I’ve been meaning to do a big, thoughtful post on this topic for almost a week now and I still haven’t gotten around to it because I keep reading interesting takes and thinking “oh, I need to incorporate that.” Or else I think, damn, it’s going to take a while to write that post.
Last night we had a post-election panel discussion on campus and I basically went on an extended rant of what I’ve been thinking on the issue. So, I just decided to basically come home and type up a version of what I said. Apologies in advance for not being more coherent and organized, but here goes…
Okay, so what does the Republican Party have to offer the white working class? (the original title of my post in draft stage, in fact). Cultural validation. You are okay as you are. You are not a bigot just because you are uncomfortable with the rapid cultural change surrounding gay marriage. You are not racist because you give the benefit of the doubt to police. You are not anti-Muslim just because you are afraid of terrorism. You have the salt-of-the-earth real American values that the country was founded upon. The coastal, urban elites are looking down on you. They think you are stupid and backward. They think they can tell you how you should live and what you should think. Vote for us and reject all that condescending PC crap.
Hey, that sounds like a pretty good deal. Cultural validation. So, what do you get in exchange? Tax cuts for rich people and less protection against businesses harming you, cheating you, and despoiling your land. There’s your trade. Of course, that’s not what they say. In addition to cultural validation, you get economic fantasy– these tax cuts, regulation cuts, new trade deals, and immigration laws are going to give you a thriving community where you can have a good lifetime job without a college degree. Yes, it is a fantasy, but it is fantasy spun by people who “get” you.
Now, Democrats absolutely have better answers for the economic issues. But these are answers coming from condescending urban-coastal elites who think you are a know-nothing bigot. And the Democrats’ answers (better education, vocational education, community college, job training and re-training, infrastructure, etc.) aren’t so easy. And they aren’t so great– that robot is not giving you your job back and neither is that textile worker in Bangladesh. 1950’s America is not coming back.
Furthermore, Democrats have actually been winning on the social-cultural stuff. Look at the enormous change on gay marriage in a short time. Look at the fact that Donald Trump is called racist not for the N word or clear cases of inter-personal or business discrimination, but because he uses coded appeals about Black-on-Black crime and “law and order.” Compare that to George Wallace’s racism. And sure, life ain’t great for a Transgender person, but it’s surely a lot easier and more accepted than 20 years ago. Democrats can win on this stuff. Solving the problems of hurting communities in Canton, Ohio or Statesville, NC are a lot harder.
And, since Democrats can actually makes some progress here. And since a lot of the liberal/coastal elites really do care more about these issues. And since that’s where the money to support the Democratic party comes from, it’s not surprising that Democrats place a real emphasis on these issues.
But, there’s a real problem with that. The amount of room on the political agenda is pretty close to zero sum. I like to think of it as there only being so much political oxygen in the room to go around. And if you are a political party and your attention (at least seems) to be primarily on issues of gay rights, transgender bathrooms, and police violence against Black communities, what is that you have to offer white working class voters throughout much of non-cosmopolitan America? You may have very good and smart policy ideas, but it is clear to these voters that this is not where your energy is.
If you’ve been a long-time reader, you know that I don’t begrudge gays their increased rights, etc., and you sure know how much I care about better criminal justice policies and police accountability, but you also know that I’ve been frustrated at how their just doesn’t seem to have been enough energy on policies to create greater economic opportunities for Americans without college degrees.
So, the Democratic Party needs to find a way forward on this. What it could really use is it’s own version of Newt Gingrich of the early 1990’s. Gingrich had a broad strategic vision for how to make the Republicans the majority party and he worked broadly and tirelessly (and sometimes, underhandedly) towards that goal. That’s what Democrats need. And, no, the Democrats do not need to “win” the white working class to make that happen. But they need to not get killed among the white working class. And I think a significant part of that is emphasizing a strong, coherent vision, that let’s these voters know that, okay, maybe Republicans have your back on some of this cultural values stuff (the Democrats will not and should not play to racial resentment, xenophobia, etc.), but we’ve got your back on an economic vision for improving your opportunities and your communities.
Finally, let’s add that there is a very real element of racial resentment and xenophobia motivating some white working class voters (and some white college-educated voters). Some of them may be ungettable “deplorables.” But, this is far from all white working class voters. Furthermore, there’s surely a decent segment that may be more or less motivated by these baser motives depending upon the political context. And when that context is a Democratic message that gives them economic hope, rather than one of cultural condescension, the baser motives will be far less relevant.
Okay, hope that made some sense. (And this ended up being link free, but probably the best and most influential take I recall right now is this great one from Robert Kuttner.) I’ve obviously been thinking a lot about this and would particularly value thoughts, feedback, etc.